Stiffed, Again

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The first consensus that emerged, after the election, was that there had been altogether too much talk of gender on the Clinton side of things. Her campaign had tried to tell a story that it thought was universally appealing: they gave us pictures of Hilary Clinton as a little girl and invited Americans to dream that she might one day become president. But a large proportion of voting Americans — if not quite the majority of them — clearly didn’t buy it. They were telling themselves a different story, of an America that had fallen so far from its original ideals that it was now in crisis, and was in need of a strongman to lead it out of its current state of disarray. Of course, a story about a “strong man” is also a gendered story, but that fact tended to get lost in the post-electoral commentary.

All of it made me think of Susan Faludi’s 1999 book Stiffed, a book that dates to a cultural moment before Barack Obama — before George W. Bush — but which now seems prescient to me. In the book Faludi, fresh off the success of Backlash, went out into the world of men in search of their very own “problem with no name,” borrowing the phrase Betty Friedan used to describe women’s malaise in The Feminine Mystique. “I can see now that I was operating from an assumption both underexamined and dubious,” she writes at the outset of the book. “That the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them, and that its cure was surely to be found in figuring out how to get men to stop whatever it is.”

Instead, as Faludi traveled around the country to various male enclaves, she found that men were in the grip of a kind of masculine myth — the notion that a man should be “the master of [his] universe” — that proved hard to shake because it was isolating. It invited men, in short, to live in a world of fantasy and delusion, because no person is really the “master” of their own universe. Everyone, Faludi pointed out, lives in a social context, even men. But the “male crisis” had difficulty seeing that, because having no clear enemy — no obvious oppressor — troubled men were usually eager to invent one.

When this fantasizing meshed with material circumstances, it could prove downright threatening. Visiting a center for the unemployed set up by McDonnell Douglas, for example, Faludi found its clients full of anger at “minorities” they claimed were stealing their jobs. One of them was quite happy to elucidate the vision of the world to which he would like to return in authoritarian terms:

Smith looked over his shoulder, lowered his voice, and started up about the “peter power” of Mexicans and how it made him yearn for what he called, variously and approvingly, a “police state,” a “dictatorship,” or a “controlled environment,” a state in which the old “system” would be reimposed, his status restored, and the reins of authority returned to a benevolent but firm white male management.

This sort of statement does not now surprise us — it is possible that after this election such feelings, publicly expressed, will never be shocking again — but it is important to keep in mind that this is someone talking to a reporter close to twenty years ago. For twenty years, in other words, this resentment has been building and formulating itself, and now apparently has captured a good chunk of voting Americans.

The blame for this sort of thing, Faludi found, was not easily apportioned. After all, the men at the McDonnell Douglas unemployment center did lose their jobs. And in her examinations of other bastions of masculinity, she found there, too, material support for the decline of power. In large part men felt betrayed by corporations that did not return their loyalty as workers or as sports fans. They found themselves in the grip of an “ornamental culture,” as Faludi puts it, where the appearance of excellence was far more importance than actual excellence. Each of these things inflected male frustration and drove that segment of the population further and further into fantasy.

“The male paradigm of confrontation has, in fact, proved worthless to men, ” Faludi observed, suggesting that in the alternative men might want to look for a version of masculinity centered on caretaking and nurturing. Still her evidence, even all the way back in the 1990s, was glum about the prospect. As an example of ornamental culture she had offered up poor old Sylvester Stallone, trying to break free of Rocky, a role he now found had stifled his chances. “I don’t exist,” he complains to Faludi of Rocky fans. “It’s like people see through me.” And as we know now, old habits die hard: last year Stallone earned his first award nominations in almost four decades, for reprising his Rocky role in Creed.

In Stiffed, in other words, Faludi could already see this variety of angry, fantastical sort of masculinity that the president-elect now embodies. And she could already see how hard it would be for America to shake it.